70-year search leads to reunited family

Holocaust Remembrance Day has always been a special time of year for me, a time to “never forget” the atrocities that occurred from 1939 to 1945 across Europe. Ever since I was a little girl, my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, would tell me captivating stories about his imprisonment in the death camp of Auschwitz. Though he passed away when I was 10, hearing about my grandfather’s experiences has had an enormous impact on my life, and being the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor will always be the most important aspect of my identity. Holocaust Remembrance Day, on January 27, allows me and my family to honor the legacy of my grandfather, his 60 family members who died, and the six million Jews who were murdered in the genocide.

Two years ago, the day took on an entirely new meaning for my family. On April 20, 2016, my aunt called my father because after an over 70-year search, my grandfather’s brother, Chaim, had been found.

At the onset of World War II, the Nazis forced my grandfather and his family into the Piotrkow Trybunalski ghetto in Poland. My great-grandmother begged her two sons to flee the country, but as the oldest sibling, my grandfather felt obligated to stay and support the family. However, my grandfather’s younger brother, Chaim, escaped through a hole in the fence surrounding the ghetto and reached the safety of the Soviet Union. Chaim sent letters back to his family, but one day the letters stopped. The family assumed he had perished in the war or at the hands of the Nazis.

Over the next four years, nearly all of my grandfather’s family members were exterminated in the gas chambers of Treblinka. My grandfather and his cousin Yaakov were the only known survivors. After living in an Italian displaced persons camp for five years, my grandfather immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, where he met my grandmother and raised my dad and aunt. Yaakov moved to Israel and started a new life.

My grandfather never forgot Chaim and remained certain that he, too, survived the War. When he arrived in the United States, my grandfather wrote countless letters to the Polish and Russian governments in search of information about Chaim’s whereabouts. My aunt was touched by my grandfather’s passion, and when she reached adulthood, she adopted the quest to find Chaim. For 20 years, she repeatedly contacted Yad Vashem—the Holocaust remembrance center in Israel—and the Red Cross. Chaim always remained in our thoughts and conversations as I grew up.

In early 2016, my cousin Jessica gave finding Chaim another shot, believing that social media could provide new insight. After uploading the little information she had about Chaim onto JewishGen.org, a Jewish heritage website, she was redirected to a Russian forum where someone matched my grandfather’s original last name, Beljitsky, to a Russian man named Evgeny Belzhitsky. Evgeny, who lived with a large family in Sakhalin, Russia, turned out to be Chaim’s son.

Chaim and his family had been searching for my family all along, too. Finally, we were reunited, and I can’t put into words the emotions all of us felt in that unforgettable moment.

We have a lot of lost time to recover. We don’t speak the same language, but my cousins in Russia are taking English classes, and my family and I are trying to learn Russian. Last summer, Chaim’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter visited the United States, and the American, Russian, and Israeli sides of our family reunited in Israel that October. Every day, we send messages to each other in our family WhatsApp chat. We are starting to rebuild the extended family we were deprived of for over 70 years. As my grandfather would say, our happiness is all the revenge against the Nazis we will ever need.

But this story is bittersweet. My grandfather passed away before the discovery and never saw his brother again. My family likes to say that the brothers brought us all together from heaven, but it’s heartbreaking that my grandfather couldn’t share in the reunion. What happened to my family is a miracle, but the rest of my family members who were brutally killed in the Holocaust will never be found. The majority of Holocaust survivors are never reunited with their family members. My family’s story shows the importance of the phrase “never forget.” If we had forgotten Chaim, my cousins would have been lost forever. I hope that my story can inspire others never to lose hope, too.

Never forgetting is the only way to ensure that atrocities like the Holocaust do not happen again—especially today, when I believe the Holocaust is more relevant than ever. As more survivors pass away, we can’t let their stories die with them. It’s frightening that anti-Semitism is not dead in this country and around the globe. Living in my bubble of Newton and BB&N, I don’t really encounter anti-Semitism. But in 2016, students from Catholic Memorial High School chanted “You killed Jesus” at a basketball game against Newton North, a high school with a large Jewish population only five blocks from my home. Students discovered anti-Semitic graffiti at a Newton middle school the same year. My eyes were opened even more this past summer, when we all witnessed the prevalence of anti-Semitism in our nation with Charlottesville’s white nationalist march and the destruction of Boston’s Holocaust memorial not once, but twice.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is also a time to reflect on the greater issue of genocide in the world. Following the Holocaust, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. The Armenian genocide is still unrecognized by Turkey. According to genocidewatch.net, 19 genocides are currently underway in countries like Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.

This Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must work to raise awareness about the resurgence of anti-Semitism and to remind people around the globe to live up to humanity’s promise of “never again.”

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